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Brussels, 2 May 2000

Ocean margins and their role in climate change

Keywords: marine research, climate change

Background Information | Achtergrondinformatie | Information Générale | Hintergrund Informationen

Oceans have a direct impact on this planet's climate. Little has been known about the complex processes of the global carbon cycle, partly because the scope of this kind of studies is so large. A European research project has looked at the very productive ecosystems at the continental shelf edges in the Northeast Atlantic and identified important processes in climate change.

Tackling such complex scientific issues at European level requires a comprehensive approach for which the creation of a true European Research Area (ERA) is a prerequisite. The move towards an ERA is therefore the centrepiece of Commissioner Busquin's vision of an integrated European research policy, which is planned to significantly improve the overall framework conditions for research in Europe. At the International Liège Colloquium on Ocean Hydrodynamics, 8-12 May 2000, Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin will present his approach in a special session "Science meets the Public".

As an example of this approach results of a large-scale, integrated EU research project, the Ocean Margin Exchange (OMEX) project will be presented. With almost 40 institutions from all European countries bordering the North Atlantic, OMEX is one of the flagship activities of the EU marine research.

"Marine science in the Community research programmes is an excellent example of an area where European cooperation is a prerequisite for understanding the mechanisms of the complicated processes that take place in our environment and have an impact on our lives", explains Commissioner Busquin: "The European marine environment is something we all share. Due to its importance in global climate change EU research cooperation is an essential element in the international efforts for a better understanding of global processes."

More information on the Liége Colloquium can be found at:

See also:

For further information, please contact:

Klaus-Günther Barthel, Scientific officer, Research DG
Fax: +32-2-296.30.24
E-mail :

Piia Huusela, Press Officer, Research DG
Fax: +32-2-295.82.20

Annex 1

Background Information on the Ocean Margin EXchange (OMEX) Project

In nederlands | En français | In Deutsch

The general objective of OMEX is to contribute to a better understanding of the carbon cycle at the continental margins separating the open ocean from the coastal zone. Given the complexity of the system, it has been rarely studied and many questions on the marine carbon dioxide cycle at the global scale remain unsolved despite the importance of the continental margin in the exchange processes of CO2 with the atmosphere and its role in the fertility of the continental shelf.

The ocean, which covers two-thirds of the earth surface, plays a fundamental role in the carbon cycle especially in the exchange with the atmosphere. The most recent results indicate that more than one-third of the CO2 emitted by human activities is transferred towards the ocean. The resulting reduction of the CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere limits significantly the warming of the earth and the associated climatic modifications.

Two mechanisms have been evoked to explain the transfer of atmospheric CO2 towards the marine system and its storage in the ocean for at least a few hundred years. One results simply from the chemical dissolution of this gas, which occurs mainly in the cold waters near the two polar regions. The other mechanism of equal importance is called "the biological pump", meaning that the dissolved CO2 in the surface water is consumed by phytoplankton during photosynthesis. One part of this production is transferred by sedimentation in the deep waters of the ocean and is eventually accumulated in the sediments.

The margin zone represents a particularly productive system in this context.

During the course of the OMEX project, two contrasting sites have been studied:

This study, supported by the European Union in the framework of the Marine Science and Technology (MAST) Programme, has required a close collaboration amongst about forty multidisciplinary scientific teams from 10 countries including physicists, chemists, biologists, sedimentologists and modellers. About 60 oceanographic cruises, mainly supported by the participating countries, have been conducted from 1993 to 1999. The Laboratory of Chemical Oceanography at the University of Brussels has been attributed the task of general co-ordination, with the assistance of a multidisciplinary scientific steering committee.

Phase I: the Northern Gulf of Biscay

The satellite images indicate the existence of a zone of cold water from spring to fall which coincide remarkably with the continental margin, situated at a depth of 200 meters. These waters rich in nutrients are responsible for the enhanced production of phytoplankton, which support the development of an important fishing activity in the region. About half of the production at the margin is exported either to the sediments of the plateau or slope where there is an intensive activity of benthic organisms, or to the deep open ocean. The measurement of gas fluxes at the air-water interface indicates that the biological pump is effectively causing a transfer of atmospheric CO2 to the ocean.

Furthermore, the results indicate clearly that the vertical stratification of water masses due to the temperature gradient constitutes an important element preventing the mixing of water and the input of nutrients to the photic zone. One can deduce that global warming leading to an intensive stratification will result in a reduction of nutrient fluxes and thus the production of phytoplankton in theses regions of the ocean. This will consequently reduce the efficiency of the biological pump.

Phase II: Iberian coastal region

The Iberian coast of the North Atlantic is one of the most productive regions of Europe because of intensive upwelling of deep water, produced by the northerly wind from spring to fall. These events are occurring at irregular intervals resulting in successions of high production and stratification, during which the planktonic activities are reduced. In such upwelling areas, a relatively large fraction of the production is directly consumed by fish. Intense aquaculture is practised in the Rias of Vigo and Muros, which constitutes the most important farming ground for mussels in the world. Given the narrow continental shelf, the export of organic matter towards the open ocean is relatively important. The numerous canyons that cut across the continental slope are the preferential transport paths of sediments. Consequently, the accumulation of organic carbon in the Iberian region is low on the shelf but it is much more important on the slope and in the adjacent abyssal plain than in the Goban Spur area.

The exchanges of CO2 between the surface and the atmosphere are very complex. The developed models show a good coincidence with the natural situation and should soon permit the quantification of the carbon fluxes in the sea and the exchanges of CO2 with the atmosphere on a long term basis.

The results obtained during the 7-year OMEX project can be extrapolated to other continental margin systems. They allow for the first time to elaborate a global quantitative estimate of the impact which the oceanic processes have on the moderation of climate change due to rising CO2 levels.


Annex 2

"Science Meets the Public"

Special session at the Liège Colloquium on Ocean Hydrodynamics:
Exchange Processes at the Ocean Margins

University of Liège, Sart Tilman Campus
Bâtiment des Nouveaux Amphithéâtres - Salle 202

Thursday May 11th evening

Chairperson: PATERMANN, C., Director European Commission, Directorate Preserving the Ecosystem 1

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PRESS RELEASES | 08.05.2000